Low genetic differentiation across three major ocean populations of the whale shark, Rhincodon typus

Jennifer V Schmidt, Claudia L Schmidt, Fusun Ozer, Robin E Ernst, Kevin A Feldheim, Mary V Ashley, Marie Levine
PloS One 2009, 4 (4): e4988

BACKGROUND: Whale sharks are a declining species for which little biological data is available. While these animals are protected in many parts of their range, they are fished legally and illegally in some countries. Baseline biological and ecological data are needed to allow the formulation of an effective conservation plan for whale sharks. It is not known, for example, whether the whale shark is represented by a single worldwide panmictic population or by numerous, reproductively isolated populations. Genetic analysis of population structure is one essential component of the baseline data required for whale shark conservation.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We have identified 8 polymorphic microsatellites in the whale shark and used these markers to assess genetic variation and population structure in a panel of whale sharks covering a broad geographic region. This is the first record of microsatellite loci in the whale shark, which displayed an average of 9 alleles per locus and mean H(o) = 0.66 and H(e) = 0.69. All but one of the eight loci meet the expectations of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. Analysis of these loci in whale sharks representing three major portions of their range, the Pacific (P), Caribbean (C), and Indian (I) Oceans, determined that there is little population differentiation between animals sampled in different geographic regions, indicating historical gene flow between populations. F(ST) values for inter-ocean comparisons were low (PxC = 0.0387, CxI = 0.0296 and PxI = -0.0022), and only CxI approached statistical significance (p = 0.0495).

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: We have shown only low levels of genetic differentiation between geographically distinct whale shark populations. Existing satellite tracking data have revealed both regional and long-range migration of whale sharks throughout their range, which supports the finding of gene flow between populations. Whale sharks traverse geographic and political boundaries during their life history and interbreed with animals from distant populations; conservation efforts must therefore target international protection for this species.

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